World Health Organization: Kids Need to Play More

To maximize their health, kids need to sit less, sleep better and play more. That’s the gist of the World Health Organization’s new guidelines on physical activity, sedentary time and sleep time for children under five years old.

“What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” Dr. Juana Willumsen, WHO focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity, said in a news release. “This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep.”

Not only can the proper balance of exercise, sedentary time and sleep promote healthier child development, but it also can establish good habits for later in life. And that’s critical, as many adults aren’t active enough and/or don’t get adequate sleep — which can result in a mountain of health problems.

So how can we protect the youngest generation from these unhealthy habits? Here are WHO’s new guidelines.

Physical Activity

A baby plays with toys during tummy time.

Credit: FamVeld/Getty Images

For its physical activity guidelines, WHO reviewed research on how activity influenced young children’s health. It aimed to come up with recommendations on the frequency, types and intensity of exercises that were linked with positive health indicators.

“Physical activity was associated with improved motor and cognitive development, psychosocial and cardiometabolic health in randomized and non-randomized intervention studies and with improved motor development, fitness and bone and skeletal health in observational studies,” according to WHO. “… Although it was not possible to determine the most favourable frequency or duration of physical activity, more physical activity appeared to be better.”

Here are WHO’s physical activity guidelines by age group.

Less Than 1 Year Old

These children should engage in various physical activities several times a day, “particularly through interactive floor-based play,” WHO says. “More is better.”

This should include at least 30 minutes in the prone position (i.e., “tummy time”) while the infant is awake—which is associated with health benefits, including improved motor development.

1 to 2 Years Old

WHO recommends that children in this age group engage in various physical activities for at least 180 minutes every day. Any intensity is fine, “including moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity.”

Again, the more activity the better for these kids, as increased levels were associated with improved motor and cognitive development.

3 to 4 Years Old

Children at this age “should spend at least 180 minutes in a variety of physical activities at any intensity, of which at least 60 minutes is moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity,” according to WHO.

The activity can be spread throughout the day, and exceeding 180 minutes is fine. In fact, “there is no evidence that physical activity is associated with serious risk of harms or injury in any age group,” WHO says.

The research indicated that most children ages one to four and roughly 30 percent of children younger than one already met these requirements, according to WHO. Thus, it concluded that the guidelines were a realistic way to promote physical activity among young children.

Sedentary Time

toddler playing with toys

Credit: Rawpixel/Getty Images

WHO reviewed research on sedentary behavior and health for young children to come up with its guidelines for sedentary time. It sought to determine how much time seated and which types of sedentary activities would still be associated with good health.

The research found less screen time helped to reduce adiposity (excessive fat accumulation), as well as to improve cognitive and motor development and psychosocial health. It also found sedentary time spent reading or storytelling with a caregiver was linked to better cognitive development. Furthermore, it saw reduced adiposity and improved motor skills in children who spent less time restrained in car seats, high chairs, etc.

Informed by this research, here are WHO’s guidelines for sedentary time.

Less than 1 Year Old

WHO recommends not restraining infants in a stroller, high chair, carrier, etc. for more than an hour at a time. Screen time is not ideal for this age group. Instead, try reading or storytelling during sedentary time.

1 to 2 Years Old

These children also should not be restrained for more than an hour at a time. Plus, they shouldn’t sit for extended periods.

“For 1-year- olds, sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended,” WHO says. “For those aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better.”

3 to 4 Years Old

This age group likewise should not be restrained for more than an hour at a time or sit for extended periods.

“Sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better,” according to WHO. Reading and storytelling are recommended instead.

“There was no evidence of risks of harms associated with reducing screen-based sedentary time and time restrained,” according to WHO.

The organization did acknowledge that some sedentary time is important for child development. In addition to reading and storytelling, activities—such as doing puzzles, drawing, playing with blocks and engaging with music—all can have cognitive benefits. So it’s essential that a child have these kinds of quality options to fill their sedentary time.

Sleep Time

Smiling baby lying on a bed sleeping

Credit: javi_indy/Getty Images

To come up with proper sleep guidelines, WHO looked at research on sleep in young children and the health indicators linked to it.

“Shorter sleep duration was associated with higher adiposity, poorer emotional regulation, impaired growth, more screen time and higher risk of injuries,” according to WHO. “There were no clear associations between sleep duration and cognitive and motor development or physical activity.”

Here’s what WHO suggests for sleep time in young children.

Less than 1 Year Old

According to WHO, infants up to three months old should get 14 to 17 hours of quality sleep, and infants who are four to 11 months old should get 12 to 16 hours of quality sleep. This includes naps.

1 to 2 Years Old

This age group should get roughly 11 to 14 hours of quality sleep, including naps. Children should have a regular bedtime and wake time.

3 to 4 Years Old

Children in this age group should get between 10 and 13 hours of quality sleep. This may include a nap. They also should have a regular bedtime and wake time.

The National Sleep Foundation’s guidelines are quite similar to WHO’s numbers. It says infants up to three months should sleep roughly 10.5 to 18 hours per day on an irregular schedule, and four- to 11-month-olds should sleep about nine to 12 hours at night with naps throughout the day.

To promote positive sleep behavior in infants, the Foundation recommends putting them to bed when they’re drowsy, but not asleep. This teaches them how “to fall asleep independently at bedtime and put themselves back to sleep during the night.”

For children ages one to two, the National Sleep Foundation confirms WHO’s recommendation of 11 to 14 hours of sleep. “When they reach about 18 months of age their nap times will decrease to once a day lasting about one to three hours,” the National Sleep Foundation says. “Naps should not occur too close to bedtime as they may delay sleep at night.”

Finally, the National Sleep Foundation suggests about 11 to 13 hours of sleep for children ages three to five. At this age, a consistent bedtime routine is essential—as is a relaxing sleep environment. “With further development of imagination, preschoolers commonly experience nighttime fears and nightmares,” the Foundation says. “In addition, sleepwalking and sleep terrors peak during preschool years.” A cool, dark and quiet room can help these children get quality sleep.

Main image credit: SerrNovik/Getty Images


Vincent T
William T14 days ago

Thanks for sharing

Glennis W
Glennis Whitney14 days ago

Thank you for vcaring and sharubg vv

Glennis W
Glennis Whitney14 days ago

Thank you for vcaring and sharubg vv

Glennis W
Glennis Whitney14 days ago

Thank you for vcaring and sharubg vv

Glennis W
Glennis Whitney14 days ago

Thank you for vcaring and sharubg vv

Alice R
Anna R15 days ago

of course

hELEN hEARFIELD16 days ago


Renata B
Renata B16 days ago

We used to play outdoors and I lived in a city.

Muriel S
Muriel Servaege16 days ago

Thank you for sharing.

Mike R
Mike R16 days ago

Adults too. Thanks